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Police Think the Synthetic Drug Flakka Just Landed 16 People in Hospital on the Gold Coast

Toxicology reports are yet to come back but all of the drug's headline-grabbing characteristics do seem to be there—the hallucinations, fearlessness, super strength.
October 17, 2016, 12:00am

Flakka seized by police in Florida, America. Image via VICE News

Police on the Gold Coast are raising alarm about a new "mystery drug" that landed 16 people in hospital over the weekend. There are reports that five people overdosed at a house party in the suburb of Mermaid Waters, and three "Victorian footballers" at the Islander Hotel in Surfers Paradise. Emergency services had to chase down another person who was trying to run into oncoming traffic.

"In the last 24 hours it was the largest cohort of similar drug overdose incidents I've seen in my 24 years working on the Gold Coast," veteran paramedic Stephen Burns told the Gold Coast Bulletin. With some 25,000 teenagers set to arrive to the Queensland town for Schoolies next month, there's serious concern these overdoses may signal the arrival of the synthetic stimulant flakka.

Toxicology reports are yet to come back but all of the drug's headline-grabbing characteristics do seem to be there—the hallucinations, fearlessness, super strength. These reports aren't the first suspected flakka overdoses in Australia, but they would be the most widespread. It's speculated those who overdosed may have thought they were taking MDMA—with locals warning others to steer clear of pills with clovers, Pac Man, Playboy, or Rolex stamped on them.

Flakka started getting media attention in 2015, after a string of news reports that started in the US state of Florida. Videos emerged online of "zombie-like" people in the throws of intense psychotic episodes—one broke into a police station, another brandished a gun naked on the roof of a house.

Like all synthetics, flakka is just a slight tweak on the chemical structure of other drugs. It's actually very similar to MDPV or "bath salts." You might remember the story a few years back when it was reported one user ate 80 percent of another man's face in Miami. It's now highly disputed though whether the attacker, 31-year-old Rudy Eugene, even had bath salts in his system. But there's always a level of hysteria around each new synthetic that comes onto the market. Reports from the Gold Coast after this weekend say the city is "under siege" by flakka.

Technically known as Alpha-PVP, flakka is largely produced in labs in China, Pakistan, and India—it's a cheap high, reportedly costing as little as $5 a hit in the US. You can snort it, smoke it, inject it, and even use it in e-cigarettes. Flakka floods the body with dopamine, causing a sense of intense euphoria, which can tip over into "agitated delirium." This could mean anything from hypothermia to violent freak outs.

But until 2014, flakka was still legal in the US, until it was banned along with a bunch of other cathinone drugs. This is a game of whack-a-mole though. The nature of large-scale synthetic drug production means that when one version is banned, chemists can just find a slightly different composition that has similar effects.

"These drugs are not made in garages anymore," Associate Professor Tobin J. Dickerson wrote in the journal Psychopharmacology. "They're made by sophisticated chemistry labs that are producing not just one drug, but also analogs of that drug, so as soon as one drug gets banned, here comes the next one, and the next one."

In an experiment with rats trained to press a lever—that would inject them with a dose of flakka—Dickerson and his co-researchers found the drug was just as addictive as MDPV.Given MDPV has been found to be more habit-forming than ice, this gives you some indication of how strong flakka is.

While headlines like "Gold Coast Braces For Zombie Apocalypse" may be overwrought, flakka and Schoolies could prove to be a deadly combination. Local police will face their real first test against the synthetic this weekend during the Castrol Gold Coast 600 car races. Inspector Des Hearn told the Gold Coast Bulletin there will be more than 300 police working the event, and all will be briefed on the dangers of flakka.

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